A Clash of Cultures ~ 1 Corinthians 4
Big Idea: Even the highest of leaders in church are nothing more than the humblest of servants in God’s household. Consider them from the viewpoint of Golgotha, not Wall Street or Madison Avenue.
Vincent van Gogh. Stieg Larsson. Harry Truman. What do they have in common? Far more people appreciated them after they died than when alive.
Dutch painter van Gogh (1853-1890) sold only one painting in his lifetime. Few people knew Swedish journalist Larsson (1954-2004) wrote a novel, let alone three, before his sudden death. President Truman (1884-1972) left office as one of the most unpopular presidents ever. (Truman’s 22% Gallup poll rating in February 1952 was the lowest ever recorded, making him even more unpopular than President George W. Bush!)
Yet today, opinions of all three have skyrocketed. In 1990, van Gogh’s portrait of his doctor sold for US$152 million. Worldwide sales of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy broke the 80 million mark. And in poll after poll today, historians consistently rank Truman in the top ten, as one of the best Presidents ever since the founding of the United States.
Why is this? As Paul wrote (4:5), “judge nothing before the appointed time.” In the heat of the moment, we just can’t see clearly enough to make the right assessment. The passing of time can change how we view things. We wise up and weigh what matters differently. So don’t be too hasty to pass judgment on people prematurely. “Wait until the Lord comes,” Paul says (4:5).
The Corinthian Christians had made up their minds too soon about certain leaders and preachers. But they were not just short-sighted. They also applied the wrong measure.
The “wisdom of this world” (3:19) uses Wall Street or Madison Avenue as its model for excellence. Which leader can raise the most money? Which speaker can most “wow” the crowds? That preacher – a Joel Osteen clone – is the one to adore or emulate.
But that is not how Paul values things. The apostle looks at all things from the vantage point of Golgotha – where Christ was crucified. The cross Jesus hung on inverts all of this world’s values. What the Corinthians saw as contemptible were the very things Paul celebrates as the mark of true Christian leadership – worthy of their imitation (4:16).
We are fools for Christ … we are weak … we are dishonoured! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.
This is how Paul saw himself through the lens of Jesus’ cross: “servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” (4:1)
By “mystery” Paul does not mean special knowledge only for the initiated few. Mystery is Paul’s synonym for the gospel – the good news of the cross of Christ.1 The message of Jesus’ crucifixion is a “mystery” because we find it not by human intelligence but by divine revelation.
So the highest-placed Christian leader is more like Mr. Carson (the butler) than Lord Grantham (the master) in Downton Abbey. No matter how great his talents or how many servants are under him, Mr. Carson is still only a butler. Butlers still have to answer their masters. They do not do as they please. They don’t seek to amass fans. But butlers are still vital to keep the entire household going.
The heart of the matter:
Worldly people put their leaders on a pedestal. They stand apart, all-wise and multi-talented.
Gospel people know all leaders are just another humble servant in God’s large household.
1 See for example, 1 Corinthians 2:7; 14:2; Ephesians 1:9; 3:3-10.
Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:
1. When we serve in ministries in church, we tend to assess ourselves or our team members on levels of effectiveness or commitment. How should we evaluate ourselves and one another based on this chapter?
2. “Already you have all you want, already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings!” (4:8). What is this wealth that Paul is referring to?